Frankly, until very recently, if you’d talked to me about the circus, I’ve have put it firmly in that element of the vintage scene that exists only now in memories and old photos. The days of large, wild animals being carted around the country for our amusement have long gone, along with (thankfully) those interminable televised international circuses that seemed to consist mainly of painfully ‘traditional’ clowns, complete with psychopath make-up and laboriously unfunny routines. Until, in separate parts of Midcentury Villas, Mrs M and I were both intrigued by an interview with Nell Gifford on Saturday morning Radio 4 (we’re like that – Home Service at the weekend while we do the chores!). Here was someone who’d been captivated by the world of circus just as the old format was reaching its end in the UK, and yet had been inspired to start her own travelling show, drawing on traditional circus culture for a new era. When we found out that they were based in Gloucestershire, and toured exclusively in the West, this seemed like something we had to sample.

 

And so a gorgeous Bank Holiday Monday saw us making the short journey down to the Gifford’s winter home, just outside Stroud, for one of the first shows of the season before they hit the road. Initial impressions bode well – a collection of vintage vehicles, beautifully tricked out with hand-painted circus graphics, some genuinely friendly staff, and a healthy blend of grown-ups and children clearly after a bit of traditional entertainment. With no big animals to cater for, from the outside the big top looks a much more modest affair than those I distantly recall from childhood but, once inside, the benefit in bringing the whole audience much closer to the ring, and free of safety fencing, was immediately obvious. The mise en scene (check out my theatrical patter!) had a definite thirties feel to it, which made us instantly at home and made it quite clear that, although conceived for a 21st Century world, the show was going to have its roots firmly in the heyday of the early to mid 20th Century. That impression was cemented by the arrival of the resident clown – Mr Tweedy by name and outfit – closely followed by the house band modelled on a 1930s dance band, hugely proficient and with an engaging chanteuse as compere.

So far, though, we’ve got the makings of a good cabaret. But that’s not what circus is about – and nor did Nell Gifford’s troupe of performers disappoint. Act after act captivated the audience, young and old, mixing pure showmanship with genuine physical skills that had clearly been nurtured from childhood amongst Europe’s circus aristocracy. Everything and everyone came in keeping with the style of the show, making the whole performance a continuous flow rather than a succession of individual acts, an effect heightened as individual acts would pop up moving props or announcing another. A Wooster-ish juggler, dancing acrobats, flying Romanians, balancing Portuguese, Cuban strong men and one of those women who dangle from long drapes (no idea what that’s called) – indeed, I couldn’t help wondering what the state of our circuses will be after Brexit! There were animals, too – but of the decidedly domestic and cute variety, including a troup of dancing miniature ponies and a dash of Dachsunds who had us weeping with laughter. Our proximity to the performers gave the whole thing an added edge – not that we ever shared in their labours, but we were close enough to be able to spot when the showmanship mugging suddenly turned to total absorption and eye contact with fellow artistes as a manoeuvre demanded split-second timing and fraction of an inch precision.

With all the best elements of cabaret, variety and circus, delivered with humour, panache and breathtaking skill, we spent a couple of hours transported to a time when live performance held both magic and majesty. Nell and her team have truly captured the essence of ‘vintage’ entertainment with complete authenticity and a passion that radiates from every member of the cast and supporting crew both on stage and off. The children all around us were enthralled, and it was as much as we could do to tear my octogenarian mum away at the end – I think she’d quite happily have stayed and taken up a career changing the music rolls on the fairground organ for the charming man in charge! Come to think of it, there is that add in the programme advertising for a range of skills including administrators – I wonder how my boss would feel if I announced I was running away to join the circus…

Giffords 2018 tour takes them from Gloucestershire, through Oxfordshire and as close to London as Chiswick, Henley and Windsor before making their way home via Marlborough. You can find all the dates, and lots of much better photos and other information on their website.